The Shenandoah Valley gleamed silver as it lay beneath the beams of the full
spring moon. Every young leaf and newborn blossom reflected the glistening
rays as they stirred in the warm midnight breeze. The soft light brought
an air of serenity to the landscape, save for one solitary figure whose heart
was too full to notice its tranquil effect.
Ezra sat beneath the flower-laden branches of the apple orchard, his favorite
place to go when he felt the need to think. The farm where he resided now
was still; no one knew he was out here. But they all knew what was occurring,
and if his aunt Grace or his uncle George, or his cousin Sophie noticed his
absence, they would know that he needed time to himself, and let him alone.
A fact for which Ezra was profoundly grateful.
A solemn tranquility settled over his soul as he studied the silent scene
before him. How long had he been in this place? He knew it had to be almost
20 years, but the quiet serenity which surrounded him always caught him by
surprise. He knew the same was true for his other friends, and those who
had joined him here; but it never ceased to amaze him how it felt to live
without loneliness, without shame, without fear. During these quiet moments
especially, he was consumed with overwhelming joy at the prospect of spending
eternity this way, home forever, surrounded by those he loved and would never
lose again. It could have been so different.
He swept one hand gracefully over his chestnut hair and gazed at the beautiful
valley. Ever since realizing that soon, Josiah would be joining them, they
had all been excited; it had been only the four of them for so long, to watch
and try to help the friends they'd left behind. Chris was readying the ranch
for a welcoming party, Vin and Buck were helping to decorate, and Ezra had
been put in charge of arranging for a dance afterwards. This had all been
fun, but now that things were quiet the meaning of the event hit him deeply,
and he found himself almost overwhelmed.
He had not seen Josiah in twenty years. Ezra's mind flew back to that desperate
ride, when they were on the trail of Cletus Fowler and the men who had killed
Chris's family. While they were camped, Ezra came upon Fowler's men preparing
to ambush them; he had shouted a warning to the others, knowing Fowler's
men would kill him for the deed. Chris and the others had managed to take
their enemies down, but not before Fowler's men fatally wounded Ezra. It
had been Josiah who had stayed by his side until the end, providing words
of comfort and encouragement until the darkness came.
The pink-white apple blossoms stirred in the breeze, their petals glowing
in the moonlight. Ezra gazed quietly at their beauty, marveling again that
he was even here, and not in Hell as he'd feared. But Josiah knew that Ezra
would not be damned. How, he wondered as he drew his knees up and rested
his chin thoughtfully on his folded arms. How had Josiah known what had been
decided? What reason could Ezra have given him to have any hope for the gambler's
blighted soul? How had the preacher looked through the murky darkness of
Ezra's misspent life and found the one feeble point of light buried within?
And could he ever know what that faith had meant to Ezra in his final hours?
Did he ever know? Ezra wondered as his eyes swept over the shimmering mountains
and sparkling river before him. Did Josiah have any idea how much it meant
to Ezra to have someone there when he breathed his last-to know that someone
actually gave a damn about his final moments? They all had, Ezra knew that,
and if it hadn't been so vital to find Fowler, they all would have been there
for him. But it was Josiah who took on the difficult task of watching him
die-Lord, that could not have been easy, Ezra thought. And Ezra still had
no idea why he did it.
His mind flew back to their association-it was so long ago, it seemed, but
Ezra could recall it all with perfect clarity. Time was meaningless here,
anyway. He and Josiah had not always agreed, had in fact clashed on several
occasions. The preacher was often impatient with Ezra's acquisitive nature,
and Ezra was frustrated by his friend's righteous attitude. They should never
have gotten along. But there was something in Josiah which Ezra admired greatly,
a simple faith that had withstood the trials of disillusionment, despair
and anger far better than Ezra's had. The man had his demons, but he still
believed as well. Astonishing.
And so, he mused, after a while they'd developed an odd bond; he could remember
numerous times when the preacher had been looking after him, even when Ezra
had not noticed it. The situation at Ella Gaines' ranch sprang to mind; Josiah
had literally pulled Ezra back after the gambler had almost jumped out in
the middle of a gunfight to retrieve a lost diamond worth hundreds of dollars.
Ezra had been furious then, but now he realized that Josiah had saved his
life. A life the preacher valued above diamonds, even if Ezra didn't.
All through his life Ezra had given little thought to death, and had assumed
he'd either die old and rich, or in a barroom fight over cards. Gambling
was a dangerous profession, he'd known several men knifed or stabbed or gunned
down over a simple misdealt game. And if he went that way, he'd assumed,
no one would be there to help him die. He'd simply be another corpse swept
out the back door, to be dumped forgotten in the pauper's cemetery.
That it hadn't happened that way still amazed Ezra, but the way his earthly
life had ended astonished him even more. He could still hear Josiah praying
for him, still feel the preacher's hand over his own, offering any comfort
he could. He could feel the terror which had consumed his soul as he had
confessed his fear of eternal damnation.
A shudder ran through Ezra as he recalled that conversation; he had never
forgotten it, and wondered if Josiah remembered it too. Ordinarily he never
would have admitted such a thing to anyone, but somehow he'd known that he
could trust Josiah. And he knew that Josiah had kept his word, and never
repeated the words to anybody. Another thing to be grateful to the man for,
he thought with a smile.
The fear had been so real; Ezra could recall how it had eaten at him all
the time he had been dying of tuberculosis, becoming unbearable after he'd
been shot. Many of the men Ezra had met in his life would have agreed that
he was hell-bound; but Josiah had actually called him a good man, and allayed
his fears. It had been an act that had touched the gambler to the depths
of his soul.
Did Josiah remember that night? Ezra wondered as he gazed across the moonlit
valley. Did he ever wonder if Ezra had in fact gained Paradise? Ezra felt
that he did, and over the long years had ached to tell Josiah the truth.
You were right, my friend, he thought as his eyes grew dim with tears. I
have wanted to tell you, to show you even a small measure of the joy I've
found. To assure you that your words eased my way more than you could ever
guess. And to help you find the peace which you helped me to attain that
And now...now, Ezra would be able to do just that.
He wiped his eyes clear, unable to repress a smile. If anyone deserved to
be here it was Josiah; his search would soon end, in far more joy than even
a preacher could imagine. To see his friend's pain erased, his torment ended,
his kindness repaid with unending happiness-that was Ezra's wish. And the
wonderful part was, it would soon come true.
He'd have to be there to meet him, Ezra decided, and smiled at his own
sentimentality. No, he could never do that, it would cause such a shameful
display of emotion, and even here Ezra was uncomfortable at the thought.
None of the other men knew anything about the night Ezra died, and he wasn't
about to embarrass Josiah by causing a huge scene at his homecoming. He'd
been able to control himself pretty well at all of his other reunions-well,
except for the one with his father, but that had been private. But it would
be impossible with Josiah.
The soft sound of footsteps attracted his attention; he turned his head,
knowing already who he would see. The slender form of Vin appeared, moving
through the orchard with easy grace towards him.
"Out for an evening stroll, Vin?" Ezra said in greeting, a slight smile on
his face. he'd brooded alone enough; some company now was welcome. "Seems
bout the time for it," Vin drawled in reply, standing over Ezra and looking
over the view.
He whistled. "Real purty spot ya got here, Ezra. I can see why you was so
fond of it."
Ezra cleared his throat. "It was the only Heaven on earth I ever knew, my
friend. Rather nice to find it here, in the genuine article."
"Yup." Vin nodded, then looked down. "Y'ready?"
Ezra looked up at him. "'Ready'?"
"T'meet Josiah," Vin said, knowing how obvious it was. "I figured you might
be kinda shook up over it all, reckoned I'd see if you was all right."
Ezra sighed; once it would have been so easy to brush off Vin's concern and
insist things were fine. But it no longer felt right to lie, and he didn't
really want to anyway.
"Truth be told, I am anticipating a rather overwhelming experience," he
confessed. "I'm, er, not quite sure if I can trust myself."
Vin was silent for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
The other man looked at him, surprised, and smiled. "Have you become a mind
reader, Mr. Tanner?"
Vin squatted beside him, resting his wrists on his knees so that his hands
dangled. "Well now, Ezra, Josiah was the one who was with you when you died.
Reckon that sort of experience can change how one man views another, especially
if you had words."
Ezra tried to laugh, and swallowed instead. "It was something of a personal
experience, Vin, but-Josiah was...something of a godsend to me, at the time."
Vin said nothing for a moment, then looked down, one hand tracing patterns
in the grass. "I didn't have no time t'think before my life ended, Ezra.
So I can't pretend t'know what you went through. But I know the fear that
can eat at a man when he thinks he's about t'die, an' since we couldn't all
help you through that, I'm glad Josiah could."
"Oh, he did," Ezra affirmed, taking a deep breath and looking out over the
moonlit valley. "The man has quite a gift for comforting others, even when
his own faith is troubled. It's a remarkable talent for which I am eternally
indebted to him."
"I think we all are, Ezra," was Vin's soft reply.
They sat watching the night for a while in silence, Vin crouching next to
Ezra, Ezra leaning back on the tree, absorbed in thought.
Finally Vin shook his head. "Really something', ain't it?"
"Indeed," Ezra whispered, barely moving.
"I'll tell you," Vin continued, rising, "I sure am glad Josiah ain't goin'
out like we did, from a gun. Nice t'see at least one of us gets to die
"And more, if our luck holds," Ezra added. "and JD doesn't get too reckless
in his lawkeeping duties."
Vin chuckled. "If he does y'can bet Buck'll boot his behind from here t'Judgement
Ezra laughed in agreement, then his expression softened. "Er, Vin-"
Vin cut him off gently. "Don't worry, Ezra, we'll understand if you don't
wanna be right there when Josiah comes home. We're all gonna be purty emotional,
and you got every right t'be more so'n most. Why don't you wait here, an'
I'll send 'im to you when the time is right. I bet you two got a lot t'discuss."
The gambler appeared a bit embarrassed, but finally looked up at Vin, his
eyes shining in the moonlight. "Thank you, Vin, I think...that would be best.
I just-" he stopped, looked away, and shook his head. "I don't know what
I'll say. I feel quite overcome already, and the man's still alive."
Vin regarded him with sympathy, then said quietly, "Just say what's in your
Ezra thought for a moment, then shook his head.
"Impossible," Ezra whispered in a choked voice as he looked away, "impossible."
Vin knelt beside him and clasped his shoulder. "Then wait an' see. Y'just
might surprise yourself."
He gave Ezra's shoulder a soft slap and rose, and Ezra heard his footsteps
as he walked back through the orchard towards his mountain cabin. He shook
his head. What would he say? How could he express what was in his heart,
when there were no words to describe it? Or would Josiah simply know, without
any words between them at all?
Ezra sat quietly, watching the night sky and thinking, knowing that the answer
would come soon.
JD dreaded going home that night.
Normally the ride between the police station where he worked as a detective
and the home he shared with Casey was one of anticipation. The Chicago beat
was very tough, and JD always looked forward to getting home, kissing his
wife, listening to the news of their kids. If William had any news from college,
or if their daughter Annette and her husband Joe had settled into their new
home in St. Louis yet. And of course he'd check in on Christopher, and marvel
how much like a man the 16 year old was. But things were different now, and
they had been for almost a week, ever since Nathan called from the mission
in Santa Fe.
JD had to grin to himself as he looked out of the window of the trolley as
it glided through the city streets. The telephone was still something he
was getting used to. Just like all those other new things springing up seemingly
every day now. He suddenly felt very old, even though he had no more than
44 now. He stared sadly at his reflection in the window, spotted with drops
of light rain. Usually he could ignore the gray hairs sneaking into the black,
but now he thought he looked ancient.
Because in his mind, he was still 18, jumping off of a stagecoach into the
biggest adventure of his life. Meeting six other men who would shape him
for his future. Only three of them remained now.
Soon it would be only two.
JD sighed as he took off his hat and pulled one hand through his thick hair;
he shouldn't be so sad about all this, it wasn't as if it were a shock. Josiah
had been sick for a long time, and it was a miracle he'd lived this long.
The old preacher had been well taken care of, his Seminole wife Bright Dawn
was with him, and all the kids they had been looking after since opening
the mission years before would be dropping in. This had all been horribly
sad but expected. It wasn't like-
His breath caught in his throat, the memories still painful after all this
time. It wasn't like the last time any of them had stood over the graves
of those who had died too soon. After their last ride together...
The Chicago streets disappeared before JD's eyes, replaced by misty faces
which drifted before his mind's eye. All of them riding together, after the
men who had murdered Chris Larabee's family, determined to end the pain of
the man who had led them all safely through the fires of hell countless times.
They had succeeded. But the cost had been so high...
A desperate feeling overwhelmed him; he'd take a leave and go out to Santa
Fe, whether Josiah liked it or not. The preacher had been insisting JD not
interrupt his work, that it was nothing, that if JD came out he'd climb from
his bed and throw the youngster right back on the train to be with his family.
No need to fuss over him, he said. But JD wanted to fuss, badly.
While he still had time to.
The horse's hooves clattered dully on the Arizona rock as the lone rider
trotted along. The sun was setting now, the sharp orange light slicing across
the unforgiving stones and bare trees. The rider squinted into the sun and
frowned; good thing the mission was only a little ways up ahead. Nathan Jackson
hated to ride in the dark.
As he spurred his horse along, the aging ex-slave had to smile sadly at the
memories these trips always invoked. How many times had he, and the six other
men he had ridden with for three too-short years, dashed across these sun-baked
plains, chasing down justice as well as their own private demons?
Nathan sighed as he looked up ahead and saw the old mission, its sharp shadow
standing out against the sunset. He smiled in spite of his sadness, remembering
how Josiah had returned to this spot-where he had first met Chris, Vin and
Buck so long ago-and rebuilt the church he'd been working on that hot summer
day. First the church was completed, then the mission sprang up around it,
and Josiah had finally seemed to find the peace he had sought for so long.
He had long since stopped questioning why he, Josiah and JD had survived
that final ride, why they had been chosen by fate to carry on in the long
years since. They had all married and found happiness, JD and Nathan in their
families, Josiah and the Seminole woman Bright Dawn with the mission and
the orphaned children they'd helped there. Nathan and Rain had lived nearby,
and seen Josiah and Bright Dawn often; and although Nathan knew the day would
come when their oldest member would feel time's relentless hand, he still
found it almost unbearable.
It's too soon, dammit, he thought as he rode up to the gate. Too soon.
Josiah sighed in exasperation; if he hadn't already been dying, certainly
the stubbornness of old Father Harrison would have killed him.
It was hard enough to be forced by weakness and age to spend every day for
the past week lying in bed. It was trying enough to have to say goodbye to
the young ones that he and Bright dawn had tried to raise in the mission's
orphanage, knowing he would never see them grow into their bright destinies.
It was painful enough to have to part from the beautiful woman who had shared
his later years, with the knowledge that she would face a heavy burden alone.
But to be contested about world religions by a man who had never stepped
foot outside of Arizona-that was too much.
Now the old priest was eying him over his spectacles, the expression on his
round face one of clear annoyance mingled with hesitancy. Josiah lay propped
up on the bed, arms folded, his blue eyes bright with expectancy as he waited.
On the other side of the bed sat a slender, middle-aged Seminole woman who
seemed as amused as Josiah was, watching the proceedings with a quiet smile.
"Well, go on, Father," Josiah prodded, his voice rough but strong. "Y'ain't
gonna have too many more chances t'debate with me, you know."
Father Harrison sighed. "Josiah, I don't want to debate with you. I'm here
to offer you the comfort of God's word."
"I'd find it a sight more comfortin' if you could answer my questions," Josiah
pointed out, tilting his head back. His face was quite lined with age, and
the hair was completely white now; but behind his eyes burned a searching
spirit which still snapped with vigor.
Fr. Harrison pursed his lips, obviously trying to avoid harsh words with
the dying man. "Mankind has been asking these questions for thousands of
years, my friend. I would be divine myself if I could answer them to your
satisfaction. It is all a matter of faith, of deciding what you believe."
Josiah nodded slowly, his eyes distant. Then he grunted. "I ain't figured
that out in the past 67 years, Father. I was just hopin' in these last few
days I might finally hit on something'."
"He givin' you trouble again, Father?"
All heads in the room turned to see Nathan enter, his face smiling in the
"Just a friendly talk, Nate," Josiah assured him, trying to push himself
up a bit. "Seems we differ on a few points of dogma."
Nathan chuckled. "May be a new century, but some things sure stayed the same."
"Indeed," Fr. Harrison said amiably, putting on his hat. "Well, I'll let
you and your friend visit, Josiah, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Sounds right fine, father," Josiah smiled, settling back onto the pillows
behind him. "An' if I ain't here, you'll know...I finally got my answers."
The old priest hesitated, sadness flickering across his jowly features; then
he nodded to Nathan and Bright Dawn, and left.
"So good to see you, Nathan," Bright Dawn said in her light, musical voice
as she took Josiah's hand. Nathan took off his coat and gave his old friend
a look of friendly reproval.
"Couldn't leave poor ol' Father Harrison to face this ol' sinner alone, could
I?" he joked. "Y'all sure it's smart t'rile up a priest right now, Josiah?"
Josiah grinned at him through half-closed eyes; the talk had tired him
considerably. "We been sparrin' for years now, Nate. I'd disappoint him if
I backed down now."
"Mm hmm." Nathan picked up his well-worn leather doctor's bag and opened
it, taking out his stethoscope. "Rain sends her love, an' so do Grace an'
"That's right nice," Josiah said, eying the instrument in Nathan's hands.
He groaned. "Hell, Nate, ain't I been prodded enough? We all know I'm dyin'."
"The sisters asked me to check on you, an' I ain't brave enough t'refuse
'em anythin," was Nathan's firm reply. "So hush up an' lay still."
Josiah let out an exasperated sigh and allowed Nathan to place the cup of
the stethoscope against his chest.
"Don't sound too bad," Nathan finally said, though without much conviction.
"Y'should last at least long enough t'see JD when he gets here."
"I told that headstrong young fool t'stay with his family," Josiah said in
a peeved tone, buttoning his shirt. "Ain't no reason t'come all the way out
here just t'watch an old man die."
Nathan couldn't hide his smile as he packed up his bag. "Then you'll have
t'go stop the train he's on, Josiah. He'll be here tomorrow."
The old man shot him a sharp look, part anger and part joy. Then he chuckled
and shook his head.
"Never did listen to any of us, did he?" he said softly.
"Nope," Nathan agreed in an equally quiet voice, patting Josiah's shoulder.
Bright Dawn gave her husband a kiss and rose. "I should go look in on the
children, they must be ready for the evening prayers. Excuse me." With a
rustle of skirts she quietly left the room, shutting the wooden door behind
Nathan took her seat by the bed and leaned forward. "'Nuff of this brave
face, Josiah. How you really feelin'?"
His old friend groaned softly and stirred, trying to get into a more comfortable
position. "Feel like I'm dyin', Nate, what else? My gut hurts, my bones ache.
Can barely get outta bed anymore."
Nathan nodded seriously. "Thought so. Look, Tom's offered again t'have you
brought to the hospital in Phoenix. Sure you won't take him up on it?"
Josiah opened his eyes and smiled at him. "Your boy's a fine doctor, my friend,
but I ain't about t'die in no fancy hospital. They can;t help me, an' if
it's all the same t'the Lord, he can come here t'get me. He'll know the way."
Nathan smiled, keeping his voice low. "You an' the Father agreed on that
"Oh," Josiah laughed, "hardly. But it ain't his fault, I'm just..." His voice
trailed off and he sighed again, drawing one hand over his eyes. "67 years
is a long time to think, Nate, an' still not have any answers. Guess maybe
I'm just scared."
"Of what?" the other man asked, bending closer.
Josiah dropped his hand and looked out of the small peaked window by the
bed which opened into the courtyard. "Of what might happen when I finally
meet th' Almighty. Him an' me ain't always been on the best of terms."
Nathan smiled a little, trying to be encouraging. "Well, I can't give you
no firm answers neither, Josiah. But I'll tell you, sometimes when I think
back on all the wild things we used to do, seems like somebody was watchin'
out for us, keepin' us alive."
The other man lay silent for a moment, then nodded his head. "Yep-til the
A sadness descended on the room, each man remembering the grief which still
lingered, the burial of comrades too soon gone.
"That was how they would've wanted t'go out, though," Nathan finally said
in a rough voice, looking out of the window at the stars which were now blinking
in the violet sky. "Fightin' to the end, never givin' up. Just like we all
"Yep," Josiah sighed, his expression becoming reflective. "But thinkin' on
it, we seemed t'have a spirit among us that I never saw before or since,
in any other group of men. Lord," he said softly, looking away, "I still
miss 'em, Nate, after all these years."
His companion sat in thought for a moment, then whispered, "Yeah, Josiah.
He stood lost in thought for a moment, then took a deep breath and looked
around a bit. "So, is there anything I can help you an' Dawn out with?"
Josiah glanced at him, and Nathan could see a troubled look pass over the
old preacher's face. Josiah looked away for a moment, frowning to himself,
th en turned back to his friend.
"Let me think on that, Nate. There just may be."
Nathan nodded, perplexed by the haunted expression in his friend's eyes,
then stood. "All right. Now you better get some rest or you're gonna be too
sick t'see JD when he arrives tomorrow, an' you know how that boy gets when
"Yeah," Josiah sighed. "He's liable t'punish me by crackin' more of them
bad jokes. I'm not ready for THAT kind of hell."
"Exactly," Nathan replied, gathering up his kit. "I'll see Dawn on my way
out, then stop by tomorrow with JD. Night."
He blew out the candle.
"Night, Nathan. See you tomorrow," Josiah yawned, sliding down into the bed.
The room dropped into darkness. Nathan's steps echoed in the stillness; the
door opened, letting in a shaft of golden light from the hallway; the healer
took one last look at his friend, who now appeared to be drowsing, and stepped
into the light, closing the door behind him.